Great Plains Zoo finds a margin for its mission

Aug. 31, 2018

This paid piece is sponsored by the Great Plains Zoo. 

Earlier this summer in a remote area of the Great Plains Zoo, a great horned owl took flight.

The fledgling bird had been brought to the zoo after it was found by construction workers, buried in a gravel truck and unable to fly.  The zoo’s animal care team worked with it to help refine its flight and hunting skills in an outdoor training area before its release back into the wild.

Dan Ashe, the president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and former director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, released the owl, giving the zoo’s Raptor Rehabilitation Program national attention.

For many years, the Great Plains Zoo has been a leader in healing sick and injured raptors and getting them back into the wild. Its team has released hundreds of wild birds, including scores of bald eagles, hawks, owls and more, into the wild.

The zoo also has contributed to regional conservation work with breeding trumpeter swans, relocating and monitoring river otters, researching wild turtles and even helping a few wayward moose return to their habitat.

Regional conservation work is important to the Great Plains Zoo, but the zoo’s leadership is eager to expand the footprint of the zoo’s conversation efforts and leverage its highly trained staff to benefit animals around the world.

Thanks to intensive planning, sound business forecasting and a focus on the mission of modern zoos, the Great Plains Zoo has joined the ranks of large zoos across the country that carve out a significant percentage of their annual budget for conservation work.

“Conservation is the heart and soul of our work at the Great Plains Zoo,” said Elizabeth Whealy, president and CEO. “We’re proud to have taken proactive steps to adjust our business model to reflect our commitment to saving wild animals in wild places.”

A small portion of every admission ticket and membership sold benefits the zoo’s conservation efforts – something the zoo calls Quarters for Conservation. The zoo also sells conservation-related merchandise in its gift shop and has specific donation opportunities – all of which are restricted for conservation support.

Within the past few years, the zoo’s senior leadership has elevated the focus on global conservation and led an initiative – approved and championed by the board of directors – to build a fund to be able to expand its conservation reach around the world.

The recent experience of Great Plains Zoo veterinary technician Janelle Brandt is a prime example of it. Earlier this summer, she traveled to Madagascar as part of an emergency response team that helped rehabilitate almost 11,000 radiated tortoises seized from an illegal trade ring. Experts say the radiated tortoise is critically endangered and could be extinct in 20 years.

The tortoises were illegally poached from forests in Madagascar to be sold locally as bush meat or sold into the pet trade in Asia. The animals were found in a two-story house with no food or water. The Turtle Survival Alliance issued an urgent call for emergency medical responders through AZA contacts, and the Great Plains Zoo was eager to help. The zoo’s conservation initiative allowed its nimble response to send Brandt and to help with the crisis.

Brandt’s travel to a remote care facility took nearly four days and a variety of transportation, including plane, zebu cart, speed boat and, finally, a three-hour drive to reach the tortoises.

Upon her arrival, Brandt worked with other zoo professionals from the North Carolina Zoo, Queens Zoo and Bronx Zoo to provide critical care to the tortoises, including cleaning wounds, tube feeding and administering antibiotic treatments.

“My work as a veterinary technician at the Great Plains Zoo prepared me well for this experience,” Brandt said.  “The medical procedures I performed on the turtles are the same practices that I use while caring for more than 1,000 animals here at the Great Plains Zoo.”

Working with little or even no electricity at times, Brandt and her colleagues worked for nearly two weeks.

For now, village staff members are continuing the care and treatment of the tortoises, but the hope is to return the rehabilitated animals back to wild. The process could take more than two years.

“Traveling to Madagascar and working alongside other zoo professionals to help save this endangered species was a truly rewarding experience,” Brandt said.

The Great Plains Zoo also sees the Madagascar trip as the first of many more opportunities for staff to participate in “boots on the ground” conservation beyond the zoo’s regional reach.

For years, the zoo has supported fieldwork financially, buoying up the efforts of researchers on rhinos, snow leopards, penguins and other important species. But now, the zoo has built its conservation fund to be able to create strategic programs that will leverage the zoo’s own staff expertise, provide outstanding professional development opportunities for staff like Brandt and put the zoo’s experienced and passionate people into the field, saving wildlife.

“It’s exciting to have elevated our program to this level, and our commitment to conservation is only going to expand,” Whealy said. “The Great Plains Zoo is a mission-driven organization that continues to do important work to heal and care for animals that need it the most, whether it’s right here in the Midwest or around the world.”

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Great Plains Zoo finds a margin for its mission

An owl found buried in a gravel truck took flight. Rare tortoises in remote Africa found without food and water were rehabilitated. These stories and more are why the Great Plains Zoo dedicates part of its budget to conservation.

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